We are told “the Way of Water has no beginning and no end,” which sounds like a perfect description of James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar sequel. Anyone who hasn’t seen the original Avatar of 2009, or like me, has forgotten most of it, will get the disconcerting feeling of having entered the film at the half-way mark. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the disabled marine who took on an alien body in the first installment, is now a family man, married to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), with two sons and two daughters, one of them being an unlikely Sigourney Weaver. His nemesis, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is back from the dead and loaded into his own avatar.
Cameron and his co-writers are so impatient to get the movie started they hardly bother to explain anything. It’s assumed we’re all so intimately familiar with Planet Pandora and its blue-skinned inhabitants that any further introduction would be an insult to the fans.
Yet when it comes to extended scenes of magical jungles and underwater wonderlands, Cameron has all the time in the world. This film runs for more than three hours, and a big hunk of that is CGI eye candy, in which the plot goes missing while we roam around with members of Jake’s family, going “Ooooh!” and “Aaahhh!”. One imagines audience opinion will be sharply divided between those who are willing to turn off their minds, relax and float downstream, and others (like me) who are astonished that any Hollywood director might be permitted such self-indulgence.
But James Cameron, as he is ready to tell everyone, is not just any director. His movies such as Titanic (1997), and the Terminator series, have reaped billions at the box office, earning him the status of Hollywood royalty and the right to do whatever he likes. This wouldn’t be so bad if Cameron made astonishing works of art, or even brilliant action movies. Instead, his artistry is decidedly second-rate, with the action sequences a reward for the viewer’s patience.
Cameron has developed a reputation for putting down other people’s films, being dismissive of movies such as Wonder Woman (2017), and much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While it’s not difficult to spot the flaws in the average superhero extravaganza, his critiques are based on the belief that his own films are so much better.
I’d argue they may be technically better, with extraordinary special effects and immersive 3d cinematography, but if Avatar: The Way of Water can be taken as representative, Cameron’s storytelling is a mess, and his dialogue simply woeful. The plot consists of Jake’s kids disobeying his instructions, getting captured and held hostage by the bad guys, getting rescued, then disobeying his instructions and getting captured again, and so on. One gets tired of characters repeating stock phrases such as “I got this” and “Listen up”. The script is blandly utilitarian, used to convey information in a no-frills manner. When he tries to get deep and meaningful, we get lame incantations such as “the Way of Water has no beginning and no end.”
Although I hate to accuse anyone of something so serious, I suspect Cameron suffers from Bono Syndrome: namely, an unshakable belief in one’s own messianic genius, combined with a compulsive need to save the planet, or rather be seen to be saving the planet. One of the tell-tale symptoms is the delusion that pop culture and melodrama is actually High Art. Another is a complete lack of emotional intelligence, meaning that sufferers see every human interaction in grossly sentimental terms. In Avatar: The Way of Water, this manifests itself in an emphasis on family as the seat of all goodness.
The first Avatar was an ecological fable, set in a future in which humanity has exhausted the Earth’s resources and is searching for a new home. The fertile planet, Pandora, seems to have the right stuff, although it is inhabited by a race of blue, three-metre-tall humanoids called the Na’vi, who live in harmony with Mother Nature, whom they call Eywa. Obeying their rapacious instincts, the humans set out to rape, pillage and plunder this paradise. If the Na’vi resist they will be exterminated.
This is pretty much the plot for the sequel as well, only now the story concentrates on the ocean rather than the forest. The defeated “sky people” return with a lot of dangerous new hi-tech weaponry, and begin to wage war on the Na’vi, who respond with guerilla tactics. The sky people are especially keen to get their revenge on Jake Sully, the ex-marine who went over to the Na’vi and helped them defeat his former colleagues. The chief wrecker is Colonel Miles Quaritch, resurrected by having his memories implanted in a very large, muscly blue avatar with a flattop.
Sully and his family flee to the islands, seeking sanctuary with a teal-coloured community of marine Na’vi, called the Metkayina. This means they will have to adapt, and learn the Way of Water, while overcoming the scorn and hostility of their hosts, whose favourite thing is to commune with huge whale-like creatures called Tulkun.
Inevitably, the evil humans will come searching for Sully. As a novel twist, Quaritch commandeers a vessel used to hunt Tulkun, from an Aussie brute named Scoresby, played by Brendan Cowell in full Captain Ahab mode. This leads to the predictable, extended battle between nasty humans and noble Na’vi. After an hour or so of mystical wildlife documentary it almost comes as a relief when the film finally bursts into rampant violence and mayhem.
If the Na’vi originally seemed to be based on the American Indians, with the human invasion of Pandora being akin to the invasion of the West, the Metkayina are much closer to the Māori. The patterns that cover their faces and bodies, and even seem to grow on the Tulkun, are obviously inspired by Polynesian tattoos.
By portraying the invaders as whalers, as well as forest burners, Cameron trawls the depths of environmental villainy. His portrait of humanity is every bit as degraded as the vision of the western world recently presented in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. It’s a remarkable turnaround from the Golden Age of Hollywood, when John Wayne routinely dispatched whole tribes of redskins, restless natives or foreigners who stood in the way of American greatness.
In today’s multi-million-dollar blockbusters, Americans are no longer the all-conquering heroes but bloodthirsty killers, ready to decimate native communities and destroy the planet through sheer greed and stupidity. This is the image that Hollywood movies are spreading across the planet nowadays, reflecting the deep divisions in American society. It’s a powerful, dangerous form of propaganda that indulges the worst suspicions of the rest of the world, while announcing there is resistance from within. One wonders if those millions of Americans who want to make the country “great” again are getting the message, or merely gaping at the special effects.
Avatar: The Way of Water
Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, Britain Dalton, Jamie Flatters, Jack Champion, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Bailey Bass, Brendan Cowell, Jermaine Clement, Cliff Curtis
USA, rated M, 192 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 December, 2022